- Metropolitan Room, New York - January 12, 2016
Marilyn by Request
By Alix Cohen
It's "The Marvel of Marilyn Maye": Once again, Marilyn Maye is packing them in for her fifth annual Marilyn by Request run at New York City's Metropolitan Room, integrating actual requests with signature numbers. There's not an empty seat in the house, devotees attend night after night, the audience consistently contains more than a few of our best musical artists. When people rise to their feet, it's neither because they think they should nor reflex to a heady finale, but rather a valid response to remarkable show. The vivacious Maye plays our fair city perhaps more than any other out-of-town vocalist, yet her welcome remains undiminished.
I've been writing about/reviewing Marilyn Maye for years and have likely seen more performers than most of my readers. You'd think I'd be jaded or at least have become acclimated to the lady's impact. The reality is, there's simply no one like her. She can stop hearts or buoy spirits as thoroughly today as she did, say, ten years ago, possibly more, as every bit of life experience illuminates interpretations.
When two-thirds into this evening, Maye offers Sondheim's "I'm Still Here" (from Follies), it emerges classy, not brassy, the meditation of a trouper who — through luck, talent and pith — has risen above the fray. (The audience erupts into supportive cheers.) As the song swells, it never acquires the stridency with which it's generally performed. Hardworking and grateful, this singer is just getting on with it. During Sondheim's "Old Friends" (from Merrily We Roll Along), Maye raises her glass with the lyric "Here's to us" (and we raise ours)/"Who's like us?" "You say it," she interjects, and we collectively respond: "Damn few."
That's another thing: People are not here in homage to Maye's past glory as they have been for singers who plug on, still reaching for unattainable notes or lost lyrics without sufficiently adjusting format/arrangements to accommodate. These are not shows for which one has to make allowances, but exulting, full-frontal talent. Whatever vocal changes have occurred, Maye and Billy Stritch, her simpatico Musical Director of 35 years, have made them all but invisible.
Ah, Billy Stritch. This is a kismet match created in musical Heaven. As I've written before, the admiration, respect, and sheer affection these two share is infectiously palpable. Not only does Stritch intuit how best to serve each song in accordance to Maye's taste and talent without, it would seem, sacrificing his own take, tempo and commenting flourishes, but the ad-libbed repartee that sails between them is both amusing and endearing. (Yes, it's ad libbed, having to do with specific occurrences during a show.) Stritch's pianistic finesse, emotional perception, and historical knowledge add immeasurably to Maye's shows, particularly in the frequent creation of seamless medleys where songs seem to collaborate. Duets are a constant delight.
Though she imbues every lyric with personal truth, I don't think Maye gets enough credit for being an actress. She can turn on a dime from playful, rhythmic swing to plumy, intimate ballad, inhabiting lyrics. I've heard her sing "Guess Who I Saw Today" any number of times, on each occasion embodying the colors of her then feelings. As the character confronts her husband with accidentally witnessed adultery, Maye looks over our heads for this one — to him. Tonight, it's an indictment. In past years, I've respectively heard exhausted loss of faith, shock, and a prayer that there might be reasonable explanation.
In the same way, "Bye-Bye Country Boy" (Blossom Dearie and Jack Segal) in combination with "Lazy Afternoon" (Jerome Moross and John Latouche, from Golden Apple) can be an appreciative, nostalgic shrug or, as tonight, a sweet, but painfully halting memory. Though some songs, like the soaring, Rio carnival arrangement of "Golden Rainbow" and a heart-wrenching "Here's to Life," bear the artist's thumbprint, tone can alter.
Maye's unhurried phrasing is legendary. Her ability to massage a lyric, shifting octaves, manipulating syllables never feels over-rehearsed. In "Let There Be Love," we hear "Most of all, please [ple-ee- eaze]/ Let there be love/Let there be cuckoos/A lark and a dove/But first of all, please [plea- eee-eee-eze]/ Let there be love…" Same words, different treatment.
The vocalist tells us she was the first to record one request, Kander and Ebb's "Cabaret," before both the show and film. "Everybody thinks it's hers, but she says she knows it's mine," Maye jokes, referring to Liza Minnelli. The number is followed by an uproarious story of the performer's actual difficulty in getting to New York for her New Year's Eve gig this year. She has the timing and acerbic wit of a seasoned comedienne.
Another request, "Fifty Percent" (from Ballroom), is the only song that has to be read, despite Maye's almost having been in a proposed Broadway revival. (A pity not to have realized this.) "You're not going to hear all of it, so don't get too excited." Instantly, the room stills, attune to persuasive performance. One can't wait till this, too, is memorized and given due scope.
An evening with Maye is a master class in communication. She looks into people's eyes like few other vocalists, understanding the true art of cabaret. Every person here on whom she briefly fixes feels seen and addressed. If this could only be taught! Theater performers often direct lyrics to an unseen balcony; young singers seem to fear loss of concentration. The incomparable performer appears to be nourished by what she receives from her audience. She interjects a quip, or uncannily adjusts to response. Nor, blessedly, does the lady equate volume with intensity or gratuitous gesture with illumination.
A Marilyn Maye show feels intimate and party-like, no matter how large the venue. One unaccountably feels warmed at Jazz at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall. To experience the artist in a relatively small space, however, is to immerse oneself in her still disarming appeal. Despite songs of all stripes, one inevitably leaves with a sense of intoxicating optimism. She's irresistible.
Bassist Tom Hubbard swings while thrumming, creates dusky undertone, friskily pulses, smoothly caresses. Drummer Daniel Glass adds sweep and energy, hypnotic brushwork, dancey ornamentation, the urge to mooove.